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The thousand year old pastoral economy and social system of the remote Hanle Valley, in the extreme southeastern border region of Ladakh, is starting to change.

Changtang of LadakhThe Hanle Valley is located about 270 km (167 miles) southeast of Leh in an area called the “Changthang,” an extremely high plateau that stretches from the border region of Ladakh across much of Tibet. Growing crops on lands that range from 4,400 to 5,800 meters above sea level (14,400 to 19,000 feet) is quite challenging. As a result, the agricultural and social systems of the Ladakhi people in the valley are based primarily on herding. A journal article by Tsewang Namgail and three co-authors explains the factors that are prompting changes in their pastoral way of life.

The nomadic Hanle Valley peoples, known as Changpa, live in an especially cold, arid, and windy place which enjoys only a couple summer months when high, Alpine vegetation can thrive. They migrated west into the region from Tibet in the 8th century. After the war between India and China in 1962, they lost their access to pastures on the eastern, Tibetan, side of the border. The same war prompted refugees from Tibet to flee into Ladakh—herders who also raise goats, sheep, yaks, and horses. The domestic goats on both sides of the border produce the valuable pashmina wool, which is traded down into Kashmir for the weaving of cashmere garments.

In the summer of 2004 and the winter of 2005, the authors surveyed people in the six permanent villages of the valley plus some of the temporary herder camps. Their purpose was to gain information about the economies and social conditions of the valley. They used semi-structured interviews with at least one adult in each family in the area. In order to obtain detailed data about income from the sale of the pashmina, they spoke with the heads of 25 Changpa families and 52 Tibetan refugee families that harvested the wool.

They report that the six villages, with a total of about 1500 people, own about 27,000 head of livestock, about 18 per capita. The bulk of the animals, 65 percent, were goats. The authors calculated the annual income from the sale of the wool in 2004 at about $80 per person for the Changpa nomads, and, surprisingly, $115 per capita for the Tibetan refugees. The difference may be due to the fact that the Changpa engage in a greater variety of supplementary economic activities than the Tibetans do.

Because of the pressures on available pasture land, the Tibetan immigrants honor an agreement made in 1962 that limits the sizes of flocks they may keep to no more than 25 animals per person in each family. The native Ladakhis, the Changpa, do not have to worry about such restrictions, and while 44 percent of them have fairly small flocks of less than 50 animals, 3 percent have large flocks of more than 300 head per person.

The Changpa families with the large herds tend to move with them from pasture to pasture, except for younger children and elderly people who stay in the villages. Families with the smaller herds have the time and the ability to engage in other agricultural activities or other business endeavors. They often make cooperative arrangements for one or two people from several families to care for combined herds of animals.

The authors discuss the social implications of the changes that have occurred in the Changthang area over the past 50 years. With the spread of roads, built for the needs of the Indian army, transportation by motor vehicles has spread across the region and the use of yaks as beasts of burden has diminished. The advent of roads has prompted villagers to buy motor vehicles: 8 trucks, 16 smaller vehicles, 30 motorbikes, and 2 tractors in the valley in 2005. A bus now provides passenger service into Leh. Many families have built concrete homes, provided with piped water. Affluent families have bought television sets and smokeless propane stoves for their homes.

The people are placing an increasing emphasis on education for their children—each village has a primary school. People are better fed, and are shifting slowly to the money economy so they can buy products they want from the outside, rather than continuing to barter for them with neighboring villages or traders.

The growing prosperity, the larger human population, and the increased numbers of domestic animals have put a stress on the natural environment. Growing numbers of livestock compete with wild grazing animals for pasturage in the Changthang. The number of goats has doubled since the 1970s, probably in response to the market for pashmina wool. Also, vaccinations, animal medications, and livestock dipping have all helped promote the population growth of domestic animals.

The presence of Indian military forces near the border has hindered the movements of livestock from one pasture to another. Deteriorating pastures have had a negative impact on the wildlife, particularly the Tibetan gazelle, which is nearly extinct in Ladakh.

One of the most significant social changes prompted by the increased connections with the outside world and the growing economic prosperity has been the disappearance of the traditional polyandry. Young people in the Changthang today generally see it as a primitive custom. The growth of nuclear families has resulted in a growing human—and livestock—population.

As a result of the border war 45 years ago and the stationing of Indian army personnel in the Hanle Valley, the Changpa are employed in the army camps and in creating and maintaining infrastructure such as roads. While the people of the nearby Rupshu-Kharnak area of the Changthang, in order to find viable alternatives to their traditional way of life and to gain educations for their children, are migrating into Leh, the people of the Hanle Valley are achieving the same objectives through finding other sources of income locally.

Namgail, Tsewant, et al, 2007. “Pastoral Nomads of the Indian Changthang: Production System, Landuse and Socioeconomic Changes. Human Ecology 35: 497-504.